Monday, August 10, 2009

U2 "The Joshua Tree" & "War"

As you know, U2 are a long-lived Irish band who have a new album out. This got me interested in exploring their back catalogue, so I picked up these two in the Oxfam on Glasgow's Byres Road. The Joshua Tree I knew already, having long had a vinyl copy (albeit without listening to it in a while). Do you remember when it came out? They led off with 'With Or Without You' as the advance single, and my friend W------ made a comment about it that basically sums up the fundamental U2 problem – "It starts well enough, but you know that sooner or later that Bono man is going to start shouting". By the time of The Joshua Tree, U2 had been going for quite a while, and you could say that Bongo's lyrics and vocal style had become a bit ossified, the songs all starting quiet before going into an impassioned cry, the lyrics typically communicating a rather non-specific sense of yearning. He does deviate from that a bit, when you get tracks like 'Mothers of the Disappeared' or 'One Tree Hill', which seem a bit more contemplative, but the general Bongo tone is an incoherent wail.

I think U2 were still god-botherers when The Joshua Tree came out, so it's hard not to think that the "You" endlessly referenced in the songs might not actually be some saucy little fuckbucket but, you know, God. Jesus. I must listen to this a bit more, but overall I find myself thinking that the younger me was wrong, that this is not actually that great a record. Certainly it seems more compromised than The Unforgettable Fire, U2's first Brian Eno associated record.

And then there is War. This was their last album before Brian Eno came onboard. I think maybe I still have not listened to it that closely, still mainly on shuffle in a playlist of other records acquired in Glasgow. A couple of things strike about it. First of all, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and 'New Year's Day' are amazing tracks. An album could have these two songs and nothing else bar the sound of Adam Clayton farting and still be total classic. I think their lyrical obliqueness suits them, making them something that anyone can take their own meaning from. That Bono man does a lot of shouting on them, but there is no pretence that you are going to get anything else than this.

One funny thing I read once is that 'New Year's Day' is about the suppression of Solidarity in Poland (patent nonsense, everyone knows it is actually about the Edge trudging through snow while unspecified people ride around on horseback). The writer tried to justify this crackpot theory by reference to the line "Nothing changes on New Year's Day", which clearly related to the lifting of martial law in Poland on the 1st of January in some year in the mid-1980s – because although martial law had been lifted, the apparatus of communist oppression remained in place, meaning that nothing had changed (on New Year's Day). Even if this reading is correct, and Bongo was trying to make a statement about Polish politics, it says a lot about his non-skills as a direct communicator of ideas – what is all the stuff about how he will be with this You again all about? For all that, it is still a great song, driven forward by the Edge's cack-handed piano playing and effects pedals, playing off well against Bono's unfocussed passion. 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is similarly oblique – you get the general idea that Bongo is against war and stuff, but not very much sense of what he wants to do about it. Still, like they used to say about the method actors – you may not be able to make out what they are saying, but you know how they feel.

The other thing I found myself thinking about this record is that it still shows U2's roots as a kind of post-punk act, a band that Joy Division could have evolved into. I am thinking not so much of the avant-funk post-punk acts, more the ones who spend their time banging on dustbin lids. The drums are very to the fore on this record, for all Larry Mullen Jr.'s obvious technical limitations.

I remember in the early days of Frank's APA, one fellow established his separation from the APA's mainstream by saying that he did not want to be reading about weirdo music, but rather he wanted to be hearing all the latest hi-fi news and getting some idea whether the new U2 album was worth buying. So anyway, does anyone have any idea whether No Line on the Horizon is the kind of thing right-thinking people need in their record collections? My impression is that, by U2 standards, it has tanked, but that should not necessarily mean that it is shite.

I fear that no one reading this has any interest in U2.


String Bean Jen said...

One Tree Hill - an overly melodramatic but terribly addictive show about airbrushed people in their late teens and early 20s for whom everything always works out. Life is dramatic and overearnest in North Carolina. There is a lot of emoting and hand-wringing on this show. An impassioned Bono wail could almost be the show's signature sound.

the pinefox said...

Vicar, I am extremely interested in U2. Along with Dylan and the movies, I mean Dylan and the Smiths, and whoever else, you know, bands like the Magnetic Animals and the Field Donkeys, they are practically my favourite pop group of all time. I can't believe you have forgotten our impassioned discussions of their impact on our lives in The Stag's Head, Nealon's, Wagamama and similarly traditional Dublin venues.

The two great LPs are The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Nothing before or since compares. But in a way it DOES! Boy for instance is smashing and to me conveys an imaginary run-down Haughey / Fitzgerald / recessionary Popetimist Ireland of that time. Rattle & Hum has its special charms for me. Achtung Baby people like - even including Chris Roberts. But still, they do not have the textures of 1984 and 1987.

As an expert, I think the new LP might be the worst U2 LP, or the second worst, or third worst, and anyway not the best. I still think I like it though! I have it on DOUBLE VINYL. I listened to it all with my fish and chips + Guinness on Bloomsday this year while reading a book on Flann O'Brien. It was almost like being in Howth, or Dundalk, or Wagamama. I am always happy to talk more to you about this subject. Not the fish & chips, or the noodles, I mean, but the U2 LP and all the other ones before it.

Andrew Sherman said...

The problem with U2 is that it is hard to just listen to their music. They bring along a whole lot of baggage: drunk people singing their songs, Bono’s pontifications. Would we treat them differently if it had been Echo and the Bunnymen that became a stadium band? The trouble with buying their new CD is not that it won’t be good in some way, it is the opportunity cost of not listening to something else more exciting.

ian said...

I think Andrew Sherman has successfully nailed the reasons for not buying the new U2 album.